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Myself By T.V. Antony Raj

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In the town outside of the Fukushima nuclear plant, the archway of hope still reads 'Nuclear Power Our Bright Future'

In the town outside of the Fukushima nuclear plant, the archway of hope still reads ‘Nuclear Power Our Bright Future’

On Friday March 11, 2011, at 14:46 JST (05:46 UTC), a magnitude 9.0 (Mw) undersea mega-thrust earthquake occurred off the coast of Japan. The epicentre was about 43 miles (70 km) east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tōhoku and the hypo-center was at an underwater depth of about 19 miles (30 km).

The Japanese refer to this earthquake as the Great East Japan Earthquake and as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Since modern record-keeping began in 1900, it was the fifth most powerful earthquake in the world and the most powerful known earthquake ever to have struck Japan. The earthquake moved Honshu (the main island of Japan) 8 feet (2.4 metres) east and shifted the Earth on its axis between 4 inches (10 cm) and 10 inches (25 cm).

An aerial view of the reactor buildings at the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, north-eastern Japan.

An aerial view of the reactor buildings at the tsunami-ravaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, north-eastern Japan.

Also, the earthquake triggered powerful tsunami waves. In Miyako in Tōhoku’s Iwate Prefecture, tsunami waves reached heights of up to 133 feet (40.5 metres) and in the Sendai area, travelled up to 6 miles (10 km) inland.

Radioactive route: Journalists in protective gear are taken to the No. 4 reactor building at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant on March 6. (Photo:  AP)

Radioactive route: Journalists in protective gear are taken to the No. 4 reactor building at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant on March 6, 2011. (Photo: AP)

On March 11, 2011, after the Tōhoku earthquake and the ensuing 15-metre tsunami, a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns and release of radioactive materials from three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant caused a nuclear accident. All three cores melted in the first three days. Panic reigned at the plant while trying to deal with the three out-of-control reactors.

Used fuel generates heat, and needs to be cooled and shielded. This is initially performed by water in ponds, circulated by electric pumps through external heat exchangers, that dump the heat and maintain a low temperature. The ponds hold some fresh fuel and some used fuel, pending its transfer to the central used/spent fuel storage on site.

At the time of the accident, Unit 4’s reactor was undergoing maintenance. So, in addition to a large number of used fuel assemblies, unit 4’s pond also held a full core load of 548 fuel assemblies these having been removed at the end of November. A new set of problems arose as the fuel ponds, holding fresh and used fuel in the upper part of the reactor structures, were found to be depleted in water.

Masao Yoshida

Masao Yoshida was the plant manager during this Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, where he played a critical role by disobeying corporate headquarter orders to stop using seawater to cool the reactors

On March 12, 2011, about 28 hours after the tsunami struck, TEPCO executives ordered workers to start injecting seawater into Reactor No. 1. However, 21 minutes later, they ordered Yoshida to suspend the operation. Yoshida chose to ignore the order. That night, at 20:05 JST, the Japanese government again ordered seawater to be injected into Unit 1.

Early on Tuesday March 15, 2011, hydrogen explosions rocked reactor buildings 1, 3 and 4. Before dawn, Masao Yoshida, the director of the plant, remarked: “The worst-case scenario is a China syndrome.

On June 7, 2011, Yoshida was verbally reprimanded for defying the order and not reporting it earlier.

According to nuclear physicist Dr. Michio Kaku, the decision to use seawater arguably prevented a much greater disaster. The massive influx of seawater is the only thing that stopped the cores from exploding, according to Dr. Kaku, who added this was a last-ditch effort.

Worst case scenario - China syndrome

In Early May, 2011, Tepco sent engineers to recalibrate water level gauges in reactor No. 1. What they discovered was alarming: virtually all the fuel in the core had melted down. In other words, the zirconium alloy tubes that hold the uranium fuel and the fuel itself lies in a clump – either at the bottom of the pressure vessel, or in the basement below or possibly even outside the containment building.

Japanese Environment Minister Goshi Hosono

Goshi Hosono, Japanese Environment Minister

On December 19, 2011, in regard to where the nuclear fuel might be Goshi Hosono, Minister of State for the Nuclear Power Policy and Administration (Nuclear Accident
Minister) said there are 3 possibilities:

  1. In pressure vessel
  2. In containment vessel
  3. “In regard to that third possibility that some [nuclear] fuel may have worked its way out of the containment vessel and gone underneath it, I think there’s a very strong possibility…we think there is a strong possibility that some fuel is in that location as well.”

The phrase “China syndrome” now touted very much in the news is a fanciful term that should not be taken literally. It owes its origin to the movie China Syndrome, a 1979 terrific American thriller starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas. It tells the story of a television reporter and her cameraman who while doing a series of reports on alternative energy sources discover safety cover-ups at a nuclear power. The movie is based on a screenplay by director James Bridges and American screenwriters Mike Gray, and T.S. Cook.

While doing a series of reports on alternative energy sources, an opportunistic reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) and her radical cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) while visiting the (fictional) Ventana nuclear power plant outside Los Angeles, witness the plant going through an emergency shutdown (SCRAM). The movie describes a fictional worst-case result of a nuclear meltdown, where reactor components melt through their containment structures and into the underlying earth, “all the way to China.” Kimberly determined to publicise the incident soon finds herself entangled in a sinister conspiracy to keep the full impact of the incident a secret.

The China Syndrome

Click on the above image to read the full plot of the film China Syndrome.

The film “China Syndrome” was based on a number of real-life nuclear plant incidents and in particular the Brown’s Ferry Alabama Nuclear Power Plant Fire that occurred four years earlier in 1975.

The film was released on March 16, 1979, and 12 days later the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown. Luckily no one was hurt. Coincidentally, in one scene in the movie, physicist Dr. Elliott Lowell (Donald Hotton) says that the China Syndrome would transform “an area the size of Pennsylvania” permanently uninhabitable. The Three Mile Island incident helped turn The China Syndrome into a blockbuster.

Nuclear meltdown

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